The Federal Railroad Administration awarded the Maryland Transit Administration a federal grant of up to $9.44 million to install crash-avoidance safety systems on the MARC line running between Union Station in Washington and Perryville.
So-called "positive train control" systems are designed to automatically stop trains to prevent train-to-train collisions, speed-related derailments, incursions into work zones and routing of trains to the wrong tracks.
The technology will be installed in 11 MARC locomotives that run along 77 miles of the Penn Line, a stretch that serves more than 272,000 daily riders, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation.
The grant is part of $197 million in competitive grand funding announced this week by the federal agency, an effort to help commuter and intercity passenger railroads meet a Dec. 31, 2018, deadline to install positive train control systems.
The MTA award is one of 17 projects in 13 states being funded through the Fixing America's Surface Transportation Act of 2015.
"The number of passengers depending on rail has increased dramatically, which means [positive train control] is needed now more than ever," said Patrick Warren, executive director of the Federal Railroad Administration, in the announcement.
MARC is a tenant of host railroad Amtrak along the Northeast corridor, where MARC runs the Penn Line. MARC has a similar arrangement as a tenant of host railroad CSX Transportation for MARC's Camden and Brunswick lines. Amtrak and CSX use different positive train control systems.
The grant will allow MARC to join another railroad in equipping the Amtrak line with the same safety system that MARC will be using on the CSX lines, said Erich Kolig, MTA deputy chief operating officer, in an email.
"This is a boon to MARC because it saves the state millions of dollars in not having to equip MARC trains with two different onboard systems, or to do what is called fleet segregation, meaning to have to divide the fleet into trains that can only run on one line or the other," Kolig said.
MARC is responsible for equipping its railcars with the safety system and for providing the controlling computer system, Kolig said. But because it is a tenant railroad, MARC does not have to install equipment on the railroad tracks. MARC will complete the installation before the 2018 deadline, he said.
Such systems are designed to prevent accidents such as the May 2015 derailment of an Amtrak train in Philadelphia that killed eight and injured more than 200 passengers. After the accident, Amtrak CEO Joseph Boardman told lawmakers that equipping trains with positive train control is the "single greatest contribution my generation of railroaders can make."
At that time, Amtrak had installed the technology on tracks it owns in the Northeast Corridor from Boston to Washington, but it wasn't yet in operation on May 12 when Amtrak Northeast Regional train 188 entered a curve in Philadelphia at a speed in excess of 100 miles per hour, twice as fast as it should have been going.
Positive train control would have slowed the train automatically, preventing the derailment that federal investigators blamed on the engineer becoming distracted by radio transmissions.
Congress required the collision-avoidance systems in passenger and freight railways as part of the 2009 Railroad Safety Improvement Act. An initial deadline of 2015 to complete installations was extended to 2018.
On Friday, members of Maryland's Congressional delegation issued a statement calling the grant a critical investment in the state's infrastructure.
All the federal grants announced Wednesday will be used to install positive train control technology.
"This is a big deal to help commuter railroads get closer to that December 2018 deadline," said Marc Willis, a spokesman for the Federal Railroad Administration.